The secret of the Masnavi

Hanging out with hippies and beatniks, devouring literature, playing bass in a jazz band, memorising quotes of the Tao-Te-Ching and becoming a Muslim in the Moluk community in July ‘67. I’ve put these elements in random order as a quick sketch of Abdulwahid Van Bommel’s younger years. The end result of it all was that he found his spiritual home in the mystical traditions of Islam. Because of that, he stayed in Turkey for four years as a student and member of the Naqshbandi brotherhood.[1]

When he returned to the Netherlands, he gradually became a key figure in the Dutch Muslim community. Eventually, a few years ago, a Turkish friend asked him whether he didn’t want to translate Rumi’s Masnavi. At first, he hesitated, but three years later, the very first Dutch translation of the more than twenty-five thousand verses was a fact.

Rumi wrote in the thirteenth century, yet the Masnavi still seems to have much relevance in these times of quick cultural changes.

Indeed. Rumi’s time and age was quite like ours. You had the Seljuks, the Mongols, the Byzantines, the Persians and the Arabs, who all fought each other. And in between all political upheaval was a lot of cultural exchange.

You have to imagine that Baghdad was conquered by the Mongols in Rumi’s time, which must have had an enormous influence on the Muslims of his area. Yet, you won’t read a word about it in his writings. He was very much aware of it since he belonged to that layer of society who were the first to hear about such things, but strangely enough, in his own works, he doesn’t mention it.

I think it was his way of trying to ‘keep the balance’, to uphold that equilibrium on a global scale in which one thing always invokes another. So, he didn’t just build a worldview, but he came up with an internalized worldview that stays away from the corrupt world of war and violence.

He created a world in which we, as humans, can all feel connected to the cosmos. All the elements we find in the cosmos are present within the human being. So, we all are a small cosmos on our own. Nowadays, scientists say the same thing, but Rumi realized it out of some mystical intuition.

Rumi brings deep mysticism to the people. That’s why he uses all the existing stylistic devices in the many anecdotes and stories of the Masnavi, but they are also followed by reflections that explain in long abstract reasonings how we are all one with God and how everything is unified. In that way, he offered a counterbalance to all the dinginess around us of always wanting to have-have-have. He opposed it with a mode of being that helps one to totally detach from it all.

Sometimes it, indeed, seems completely useless to constantly restart the ‘societal fight’. The same discussions are often repeated and I sometimes feel it’s better to simply point towards the spiritual dimension of existence and then leave it to the individual to decide what he or she wishes to take from it.

That’s true, but on the other hand, certainly in these times, we shouldn’t forget to keep an eye open on everything around us. We must keep our minds open to different philosophies, worldviews and elements of society. That brings a certain solidity in our thinking. The gnostic of the world is the gnostic of God.

That’s true. It simply remains a difficult discussion. Do you leave the chaos aside or do you take up the effort to try to bring some peace into it? To flee from the world has no use, but neither is it good to lose oneself in that world.

Rumi actually found some balance in that dilemma. He did confront the chaotic world of desire, greed and war with a spiritual process of ‘internalization’, but he also tried to bring that process as close as he could to the people. For him, ‘being spiritual’ isn’t reserved for intellectuals or especially gifted people. That’s why he made it clear how your spirituality should bring you to the centre of reality and that you shouldn’t turn your back to the world.

Ultimately, Rumi is a humanist. He wants to tell people that ‘meaning something to someone’ is the highest good.

Nonetheless, although we can find such a ‘humanism’ in his writings, doesn’t Rumi above all focus on a strong ‘divinism’? I invent the word somewhat, but I use it to refer to his constant striving for total unification with the divine.

I have to admit that I initially was quite sceptical about Rumi and his view on this matter. I had some resistance towards such a goal, for in Sufism there’s a difference between wahdat al-wujud and wahdat ash-shuhud.

According to the wahdat ash-shuhud – the idea of unity of perception, of which Ahmad Sirhindi is an important proponent – one can eventually only be a ‘witness’ of the divine. There remains a distinction between yourself and God and your connection to God is somewhat more ‘from the outside’. But in the wahdat al-wujud, they propose that total unification with the divine is possible. The Spanish Sufi, Ibn Arabi, is seen as an important promoter of this teaching. I am a Naqshbandi myself, however, and that school of thought belongs to the wahdat ash-shuhud, so my view on the matter differed from Rumi’s.

Yet, when you start reading Rumi’s texts, he takes you along and something happens to you. One way or the other, my resistance fell away and I experienced a deep unity.

So, did you eventually choose ‘the way of total unification’?

In the end, it’s not really a matter of choosing one or the other. There might be different interpretations about the nature of the divine unity, but there is no doubt about the fact of divine unity. And it increasingly becomes clear to me how little difference there is between those two paths. All in all, it’s a very thin line that dissolves the moment you truly experience it. But you almost can’t express that experience with words.

What is so wondrous about Rumi, therefore, is the fact that he took up the fight to try to express the inexpressible. He tries to describe the essence of what moves us in our depth, what emotionally and spiritually makes us human.

Something that, for example, really stuck in my mind was the thought that “the heart of the one who hasn’t crossed his own boundaries, still lies at the feet of the other.” Such an insight is not just a nice slogan. It expresses a different reality. It points towards the difference between love of the senses and spiritual love. Love of the senses is love for what you see, hear, feel, experience, etc. Spiritual love means to partake in the universal love. Spiritual love is a reality that is joined by the whole of creation. It is not possessive. While all mental and organic love has something possessive and claims or demands something, spiritual love has none of that. Spiritual love goes beyond the individual. It is experienced ‘personally’ but it’s not private or personal.

Rumi, therefore, also doesn’t want to be occupied with spirituality in a bit of a bourgeois way. It’s a very serious matter for him and he wants to bring everyone to pure unity of love.

On the other hand, it isn’t always strict seriousness. The Masnavi is also known for its funny anecdotes.

Even more so, sometimes those tales are quite erotic as well. That’s why the Masnavi is forbidden in certain circles. There is quite a daring scene, for example, in which a maid has found a way of having fun with the donkey in the stable. On a certain day, the lady of the house discovers her secret. Yet, the very sight of it brings a whole lot of phantasies to her own mind as well. So, she sends the maid on an errand and goes to the stable in excitement. What she hadn’t seen, however, is how the maid always slid a pumpkin around the penis of the donkey to make sure that its length was shortened. So, when the lady of the house approaches the donkey, she gets killed relentlessly the moment the donkey takes her fully. (Abdulwahid laughs.)

That’s a fantastic story, if for nothing else, because it’s a part of such a world-famous mystical text. But what does it mean according to you? Is its message simply that we should learn to control our desire?

That’s a part of it, but a different layer of its meaning, I think, is that you shouldn’t just follow any role model. In the Muslim world, that’s often made very attractive, but Rumi makes it clear that you shouldn’t thoughtlessly mimic someone. You always have to comprehend how and why you have to do something. So you shouldn’t simply imitate a prophet or a saint.

Like this, Rumi’s stories have little fishing hooks. Like needles, they stick to your mind.

Is there another specific story that stuck to your mind like that?

One story I really love tells about a scholar who passes a lake on a little ferryboat. The scholar hears the grammatical mistakes the ferryman is making and at a certain moment asks: “Did you actually finish your schooling?” The ferryman answers: “No, I haven’t gotten around to it because I had to work.” “Ah”, the scholar says, “then half of your life has been a waste.” Like that, they peddle along, but in the middle of the lake, it turns out that the boat doesn’t have a very good bottom. Slowly, it starts sinking. At that moment, the ferryman asks the scholar: “Say, did you actually learn to swim?” The scholar answers: “No, I haven’t because I had to study.” “Ah,” the ferryman says, “then your whole life was a waste.”

This is, indeed, a great example of how Rumi often questioned all forms of authority – whether on a political or a scholarly level. I always love the way he puts great emphasis on the idea that status doesn’t matter in the direct connection between the individual and God. Sadly enough, however, the brotherhoods that stemmed from Rumi and other Sufiya sometimes got taken up in the existing structures of society and, gradually, certain hierarchies crept in.

That’s true. And when certain groups couldn’t claim a societal status, they sometimes sought to confirm their hierarchy in the ‘spiritual world’ in the sense that they tried to show how they are the only ones who will be saved. So, their language of the hereafter became stronger, because if you don’t have a hierarchy on earth you can always focus on a theoretical hierarchy in heaven.

That’s, of course, not something specific for the followers of the Sufis. One can see, for example, that it’s also very attractive for young people in the West. In the Netherlands Muslim migrants often don’t get many chances in the job market. It’s quite difficult for them to earn a good status in society. And then you get phenomena, such as the fundies of Sharia4UK, Sharia4Holland and Sharia4Belgium. When you listen to their language and creeds, you can immediately hear how narrow-minded they are and how little they have comprehended what Islam really teaches, but they do attract youngsters who are excited by gatherings at ‘secret places’. In such groups, they receive a certain meaning within the hierarchy they create for themselves.

All of that sharply contrasts with Rumi’s Masnavi. His own Mevlevi order was strongly structured after he died, but that was because of his son, Sultan Valad. In his own texts, you won’t find any hierarchy because Rumi actually takes the same stance Nelson Mandela once expressed when he said: “A saint is a sinner that keeps on trying.” Every time we wind up in the gutter, we can get up again. That’s Rumi’s vision. So, he didn’t propose any plan with different levels. He realized that people make many mistakes but can also always stand up and once more embark on the search for unification.


[1] The Naqshbandi brotherhood is a Sufi tariqa that originated in the twelfth century out of the teachings of Yusuf Hamdani and Abdul Khaliq Gajadwani. The latter is regarded as the shaykh who introduced the silent dhikr, one of the practices which is typical of the Naqshbandi. Dhikr is an Islamic devotional act and method of prayer that shows a lot of similarities with the repetition of mantras. It typically involves the recitation of the Names of God and/or supplications taken from hadith or Qur’anic verses. It can be translated as ‘remembrance’. The practice is, therefore, seen as a way of constantly remembering God. Whereas dhikr will be performed out loud in many tariqas, the Naqshbandi remain quiet when repeating their specific devotional phrases.

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